State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said Thursday he now estimates that 15,000 to 30,000 cattle died in the early autumn blizzard that buried western South Dakota in snow nearly two weeks ago.
Oedekoven earlier estimated the livestock loss at 10,000 to 20,000, but he said reports from ranchers, emergency officials and others caused him to raise his estimate. Some ranchers are not yet sure how many cattle they lost because they are still discovering carcasses or finding live cattle that mixed with neighbors' herds after being pushed by the snow and high winds, he said.
"It's still a challenge to figure out what they still have and what their true losses were," Oedekoven said.
The state veterinarian said financial losses will be substantial, with bred cows selling for about $1,600 and cow-calf pairs selling for $2,000 or more.
Some ranchers have reported heavy losses exceeding half their cattle herds from the storm that started Oct. 4 and dumped more than 4 feet of snow in some parts of the Black Hills. Reports of 20 inches or more were common in the prairie ranching region. The cattle were drenched by rain before being hit by heavy snow and strong winds that pushed them over fences into roadways and other ranchers' pastures.
Oedekoven said ranchers so far have reported losing 7,157 cattle, 250 sheep and 92 horses, but he said many ranchers are too busy searching for cattle and dealing with other problems to make voluntary reports of losses to his office.
State Rep. Gary Cammack, who ranches and runs a farm and ranch supply store in Union Center, initially thought he lost about 70 cows and some calves. He said Thursday he now knows he lost about 120 — or 20 percent of his cow herd — after finding additional carcasses in remote, hard-to-reach locations. He said it's possible that total losses will exceed 30 percent in western South Dakota, which has 1 million or more cattle.
Some ranchers are finding cattle that drifted as far as 10 miles once they got onto roads, Cammack said. Some are second-guessing themselves, wondering if they should have done something different before the storm hit, he said.
In some cases, cattle died after the snow and wind pushed them into places where the snow drifted 10, 20 or even 40 feet deep, said Cammack.
Cammack said neighbors who stop in his store relayed stories of their losses. "It just seems like the sad stories and disasters never end."
Ranchers are gratified by donations made to a relief fund and other efforts to help those who lost cattle, but the key is for Congress to pass a new farm bill that includes a disaster program that will cover part of the ranchers' losses, Cammack said.
A previous federal livestock disaster program expired at the end of 2011, but the House and Senate versions of the new farm bill include a new livestock disaster program that would be retroactive. The House and Senate are now trying to reach agreement on a common version of the farm bill.
Pennington County dug two pits to dispose of cattle carcasses, and the county put 139 carcasses found along roads into the pits earlier this week, said Alexa White of the Pennington County Emergency Operations Center. She said officials do not know how many dead cattle have been placed in the pits by the county's ranchers. The county will make another sweep of roads Monday and Tuesday to pick up other carcasses ranchers have been unable to dispose of themselves, she said.
Oedekoven said he has no specific worries about the spread of disease from the dead cattle, but ranchers should burn, bury or have a rendering service pick up the carcasses as quickly as possible. The cattle were healthy before the storm killed them, and few insects remain in the cold weather to spread any disease, he said.
However, cattle that survived the storm were stressed and could be susceptible to respiratory problems, so ranchers should watch for signs of such problems, he said.